Leveraging The Internet Underground

If you are one of the few people who haven’t yet heard of Mahir, let me tell you about the guy.

Mahir put up a really hokey home page a few months ago, introducing himself and inviting women to come stay at his house in Turkey. The mangled English and snapshots of himself on the site are really funny, and a few people who saw the site started passing the link around. People who got the link forwarded it on to friends and colleagues, and it spread like wildfire.

Mahir got famous through a kind of nuclear “word of mouse” which generated upwards of a million hits to his home page. He now has dozens of fan sites devoted to him, a Mahir portal (www.mahircentral.com), corporate sponsors, and is being flown to the United States by a travel company for a media tour.

No media budget, no award winning creative, just a home page that people thought was funny.

The Mahir story, like the Hampster Dance and countless Internet folklore legends that came before, are examples of how fast and wide grassroots, underground messages on the Internet can spread. When these messages catch on, they can generate more awareness than a billion banner impressions on Yahoo.

We recently conducted an online survey to find out just how prevalent this type of underground communication really was. We found out that almost 75 percent of respondents passed along jokes to friends via email. More than half received email forwards (games, jokes, messages/quotes) more than once a week. In contrast, 53 percent said they never went to consumer product web sites.

There are some great examples of how Internet buzz can do wonders for a product. Consider the case of Altoids, which grew because an intern mentioned a hoax email to the President about how the mint improves oral sex. The Starr report picked the story up, and that, in turn, was forwarded around on the Internet. As a direct result, Altoids sales skyrocketed.

The people at Altoids didn’t invent the hoax, but they sure learned from it. My friend directs Internet strategy for the brand, and he spends a good part of his time thinking up Internet message viruses about Altoids that will create buzz and awareness.

Last month, he auctioned off three tins of the mint on Ebay, just to see what would happen. Within a week, not only did he have bidders, two other people were auctioning the product off themselves. He also seeds the Altoids message boards with messages that wind up as long threads of rants from site visitors.

What type of messages tend to spread underground? They are usually funny, horrific, or have to do with sex. They often have a homespun, amateur quality. They often are outrageous hoaxes. And they almost never feel branded or seem like they are from a corporation.

Selling such a strategy to a client might seem difficult. But most great advertising has had to overcome what we call the client “gulp factor.” It is particularly important to take that leap of faith on the Internet, where banal advertising can be so easily ignored.

Most people acknowledge that the Internet has permanently and radically altered the mass media communication dynamic. The trick is to understand how this new dynamic works and leverage it for our clients.

Since our job is to spread messages about the value of our clients’ products and brands, it makes sense that we learn how to leverage the Internet’s underground to get their messages out.

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